This past week, week number five of training, I had the opportunity to visit a current Peace Corps (PC) volunteer here in Nicaragua. The visit was supposed to serve many purposes: allow us to see what sort of projects PC Health Volunteers are involved in, their struggles and successes, what they spend their days doing…basically what life as a PC volunteer is really like. I visited a girl who has been placed in the department of Nueva Segovia which is in the north of Nicaragua, next to the border with Honduras. The trip was about seven hours total in bus from the town I am currently living right outside of Managua.
The buses were an interesting experience to say the least. They were packed full of mothers, babies, children, farm workers, students…and then almost the same number of vendors as there were passengers who walked up and down the aisle (more like squeezed in and out of miniscule spaces they could find) selling mandarin oranges, salty crackers, empanadas, apples, and water in plastic baggies. None of the food was “safe” enough for me to want to buy it. I’m a little more paranoid now that I have recently been diagnosed with parasites. The bus did not stop at all in their long trips of up to four hours, so I didn’t drink or eat anything except for the multiple medications I’ve been given to kill the parasites (it’s a 13 day process to kill the adults and then the eggs).
I really enjoyed Nueva Segovia and my few days there with the volunteer who goes by “Lucia.” The landscape reminded me a lot like the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. There were green mountains, pine trees, rivers, and even rain! It was a nice break from the dust, wind and noise I have become used to further south in Nicaragua.
Lucia’s town has 6,500 and is surrounded by many smaller communities, and there are also three Peace Corps agriculture volunteers who leave close by. Lucia takes advantage of this to organize fruit and vegetable markets with them - involving local farmers, and she also helps out with a PC agriculture project where volunteers help Nicaraguans make hornos mejorados or “better ovens.” These ovens are made of brick and mud with a large steel barrel inside. A fire is built underneath the barrel, and the food is placed inside. Hot air circulates around the barrel to evenly cook the food. The oven is “better” because it uses less wood, and also has a chimney to disperse the smoke. Most stoves and ovens in Nicaragua use burning wood and the kitchen area is constantly filled with tear-causing smoke. Lucia told me that many Nicaraguan women have small hairs on their eyeballs as a result of all this smoke exposure.
One afternoon, Lucia and I decided to help two laborers make one of these ovens in the house of a woman who has wanted one for a long time. She bought the materials (barrel, bricks, steel rods) and paid the two laborers 50 córdobas each (USD $2.50) for the day of work. When Lucia and I arrived, the men had already built the base for the oven, and were working on constructing the layers of bricks (about nine in total) which would surround the barrel. Trying to stay clean was useless, and soon we had mud everywhere – in our shoes, on our faces, in our hair… I would have taken more pictures of the process and we progressed, but my mud-caked hands made that a little difficult.
With four people, the work went fast. Soon we were ready to place the barrel inside, and then we started the more careful work of ensuring that there was always at least a two inch space in between the barrel and the brick to make sure air could circulate. As we started to curve the bricks inward to cover the barrel, we had to measure each side to make sure they were even, and use pieces of steel rods to balance the bricks on. Each of the four of us had different duties. One man made the mud (yes, there is actually a method to making mud. You first build a mini-volcano out of dirt and fill the middle with water and then you slowly cave in the sides of the volcano to mix in the water with a shovel). The other laborer, his son, was the brick-cutter. He cut the bricks into the different shapes we often needed: triangles, round shapes… He did this using a machete knife which is apparently something that every respectable Nicaraguan man with at least an ounce of manliness knows how to operate quite skillfully. Lucia and I were the ones who were making the layers- first placing a layer of thick light brown mud, then fitting the bricks, then sticking more mud in between each brick. The barrel that was used had previously held gasoline, then beans (hopefully it was washed in between…) and the chimney was made out of cement and we fitted it on top and it was held in place by of course, more bricks and mud.
It took six hours total to finish the oven, and I think that was relatively fast since there were so many of us, and all three of them had been through the process before. After eight days of drying, the oven will be ready to use! For all our efforts, we were given a free lunch of rice, beans, and a sweet oatmeal-like drink. I felt extremely satisfied to have done something with my hands that had a real impact on someone’s life. It was obvious that the woman we made the oven for spent most of her day in the kitchen, and she was already talking about how she would use her oven for: bread, chicken….she even was joking that she could squeeze an entire pig in the barrel and cook it too!
I can’t wait to return to that village to visit Lucia in the future and go see the finished and working oven and try some of the bread made in it. Although this “better oven” project wasn’t necessarily in my official “sector” of health, I really enjoyed getting dirty and helping people in a tangible way. Sometimes, as a health volunteer, you may wonder if people are really listening to all your educational talks, or really taking your advice about family planning, malaria prevention, and HIV/AIDS. With this project, I really felt like a real PC volunteer. This was the sort of project I had always imagined volunteers doing – getting dirty out in the country alongside host country nationals.
While I can’t always play in the mud every day as a health volunteer, hopefully I will have a chance, like Lucia to work with volunteers and projects from other sectors. Maybe I will start a community garden to improve nutrition. Something I really took away from my volunteer visit was that every volunteer’s service; their projects, their counterparts, their living situation, how they choose to spend their time, etc. is as diverse as every volunteer. I can focus on maternal health, HIV/AIDS, adolescents, parents, nutrition… My service, which will officially begin in mid-April, can be however I choose to make it. Hopefully there will be a little dirt and manual labor thrown in there to make my service “better” as well.